Brian Lightfoot Brown: The unsung Indian heroes of the Boston Marathon

Thomas Longboat, an Onondaga from the Six Nations in Canada, won the Boston Marathon in a record time of 2:24:24 in 1907. Image: British Library

Boston Marathon: Unsung Heroes of Indian Country
By Brian Lightfoot Brown

Native Americans have long been overshadowed by the modern “American” lifestyle. Even in the world of sports, Native Americans are overlooked, as if a rare flash in the pan, with the exception of the unflattering mascots.

Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) is one indigenous athlete who stood out as a superior athlete in multiple sports. Billy Mills (Oglala Sioux) earned his moment in the sun when he stunned the world with his gold medal victory in the 10,000 meter race during the 1964 Olympic Games.

For the most part, not many other Native athletes come to mind in history. The invisibility of Native athletes is common in major events like the Boston Marathon. This annual road race, internationally renowned, has a rich history. The even more disappointing issue is that even Native Americans, for the most part, are unaware of Native successes of this iconic race, one not competed in by Jim Thorpe or Billy Mills.

Excluding specific Native communities from which these runners represented, many indigenous Americans have never heard of William Davis, a Mohawk from Canada, who finished 2nd in the 1901 Boston Marathon. Unknown to Native America is a woman by the name of Patti Lyons Catalano of Canada's Micmac people, who finished 2nd in the women's category of the Boston Marathon 3 years in a row (1979-1981).

Lewis Tewanima (Hopi) had the lead in the 1908 Boston Marathon until he pulled out of the race after the 18th mile. Tewanima would go on to win the silver medal in the 10,000 meter race at the 1912 Olympics, however. Then there was Andrew Sockalexis of Maine's Penobscot people. Sockalexis was an Olympian in 1912, finishing 4th in the Olympic marathon. Sockalexis boasted back to back 2nd place finishes at Boston (1912, 1913).

In recent years, more indigenous runners from Central and South America have participated in and completed the Boston Marathon. Increasing numbers of Navajo and Hopi runners participated as well. Now that’s a lot of Native runners who have had some level of success in the Boston Marathon, on one of the world's largest stages. Sure, none of them won, but two men of Native American heritage did conquer Boston.

The first was Thomas Longboat from Canada, a member of the Onondaga Nation and also an Olympian. Longboat was inspired and trained by the previously mentioned Bill Davis (Mohawk). Longboat was the first person of indigenous lineage to win the Boston Marathon with his victory in 1907. An instant hero amongst his people, but a relative unknown in Indian Country.

The other unsung hero was Ellison “Tarzan” Brown of Rhode Island's Narragansett tribe. Brown gained fame when tossing his dilapidated shoes to the side and finishing the last five miles of the Boston Marathon barefoot. But “Tarzan” Brown etched his name in history (with shoes on) when he pulled away from Boston's defending champion Johnny Kelley on the final Newton hill to win the 1936 Boston Marathon. The incident of Brown breaking away from Kelley provoked Boston Globe writer Jerry Nason to state that Brown “broke Kelley's heart,” creating the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” nickname.

Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, my grandmother's little brother, competed in the 1936 Olympics, as a teammate of the legendary Jesse Owens. In 1939, through a driving rain, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown won the Boston Marathon for a 2nd time.

It's been quite some time since his last victory and he remains a legend among the Narragansett people but is sadly unknown and overlooked by Indian Country, as are Longboat, Sockalexis, Davis and Lyons Catalano. A gap needs to be bridged so that younger generations are made aware of a victorious past as we observe for the 121st running of the Boston Marathon here in 2017.

Indian Country and these heroes' stories need to be connected like the heartbeat of all of Turtle Island.

Brian Lightfoot Brown is a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe and is a grand nephew of Ellison “Tarzan” Brown. This opinion is his own.

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